THE ANGELS OF THE MOUNTAIN
By Francesco Sabini
Adapted from the Italian translation
by William Hillman - nephew of pilot F/L Donald
Reference Source: The
This article relates a tragic story from the distant summer of 1944:
a British Halifax bomber, loaded with aid for the Resistance, crashed near
Santa Maria del Taro. There were seven deaths. The description of the search
for the remains is by Francesco Sabini, history buff and an expert in the
search for wrecked aircraft. The local Apennines are very rich in places
where the air disasters have occurred, especially in the last period of
the war. These crash sites which attract hundreds of fans of "aerial archeology"
and experts in history.
While reading a book describing the activities of partisans in our area,
I was intrigued by the description of the crash of a Halifax bomber in
the Santa Maria del Taro area. On the night of June 24, 1944, a large four-engined
allied bomber/transport plane, assigned to the drop supplies to the partisans,
crashed into a mountain -- the entire crew perished. As a lover of history
and aviation, I was very curious and wanted to know more about this tragic
event which happened in our mountains.
I contacted my friend and fellow researcher Alessandro Sabini (both
are part of the GRRS Montegroppo - Recovery of Historical Research Group),
well-known military expert of World Wars I and II. His interest in this
event prompted us to plan an on-the-ground inspection as soon as weather
Meanwhile I started more research. The clues were very few. Most of
the information I found consisted of old vague accounts, but I kept
digging. Finally I reached a breakthrough in my inquiries. Through acquaintances,
I tracked down an old man who had been witness to the incident and had
a wealth of information to share. He recalled that on the night of June
24, 1944, about two o'clock, the silence was broken by a dull roar that
echoed across the high Valtaro and then, from the side of a mountain he
could see flames reaching into the night sky. It was clear that a plane
of some kind had crashed, but no one had the courage to force their way
through the dense bush in the darkness of night.
At dawn, several rescue teams and many onlookers headed for the crash
site. When they arrived they came upon an horrific scene: dozens of uprooted,
broken and burned beech trees and a huge still-smoking crater were the
first images that presented themselves to the rescuers. An acrid smell
of burning and death enveloped the surrounding area ... it was clear that
no one had survived!
Aircraft parts were stewn over a large radius and body parts of the
young airmen were scattered everywhere. The scene was terrifying and blood
curdling. The full recovery of their bodies was very difficult, since human
remains were everywhere, even on the branches of the bushes and trees.
On an escarpment the rescuers found remains in an airplane seat. When
they tried to remove the seat they leaped backwards. They saw with dismay
that, still connected with the seat belts, there was a horribly mutilated
and decapitated body of one of the young aviators.
Nearby, among the stones of the stream, they came upon a hand still
wrapped in a glove with the fist squeezed around a photograph of his loved
The plane was carrying bombs, but also a precious cargo of weapons,
ammunition, clothing, food, tobacco, drugs and money for the partisans.
These resistance fighters were busy clearing out German troops to make
way for the Monterosa Alpine Division. That night the fighters waited in
vain, hidden around the signal beacons, waiting for the help from the skies
which never came.
Scattered among the wreckage was a huge quantity of arms and ammunition
of various kinds, such as Mills type hand grenades. Many had exploded due
to the fire, and many were damaged and therefore dangerous, but several
were still in good condition.
The inhabitants of the area recovered any of the cargo still in good
condition, but also the aluminum wreckage of the plane. Aluminum was a
valuable material at that time -- it was to be used to build roofs and
doors of farmhouses and stables and was sold to a wrecker in Liguria.
The bodies of the unfortunate aviators were gathered and pitifully recomposed
by the population in seven coffins, without being identified. Don Celso
Mori celebrated Holy Mass, and the entire population of the parish covered
the coffins with flowers. A large group of armed partisans provided military
and service honours.
The bodies were buried in the local cemetery and were resurrected only
after liberation by order of the Allies. They were then transported to
the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa.
I listened to this tragic story from the old man, and felt very sad
and touched to learn that age and time have not erased the names of the
crew from his mind. I thanked him for his words, which to me were
Our next step was to locate the exact location where the disaster had
occurred. I contacted my friend Alexander again and we made plans to search
the area for the crash site.
On a cool spring morning, armed with compass, map and everything we
thought we would need, we were ready. We set off for the meta high mountain
in the municipality of Tornolo and Liguria. The research would be difficult,
it will be like finding a needle in a haystack. We reached the area by
jeep and started to realize how vast it was going to be to explore -- but
we weren't intimidated. So, with one eye on the map and compass in hand,
we set out.
We were filled with awe at the beauty of these inaccessible places,
where nature is still unspoiled. We found a stream where the clear water
flowed between the rocks and, according to the map, we were sure we were
going in the right direction.
Then the long awaited moment. We turned on our metal detectors, and,
after some adjustment tests, we began to test the waters, while slowly
approaching the ridge of the mountain. After about an hour's walk our instruments
had not yet found anything and disappointment started to set in. But, suddenly
Alexander's shout broke the silence of the forest.
"Hey, over Here! I found something."
I ran to him and, just below the leaves, we found a piece of molten
aluminum, which was certainly a fragment of the plane! I soon discovered
something else: a handle for the opening of a parachute. There was no longer
any doubt: this was the place where the plane fell!
We went along the creek and there, without even using the instruments,
we uncovered dozens of pieces of scrap from the aircraft cabin, fragments
of the engine, and even the remains of a Swiss watch. Sixty-six years ago
this gold case was strapped to the wrist of one of the crew members. Many
of the pieces bore the initials AM (Air Ministry) stamped with the English
royal crown in the middle. It was now clear that this was a plane of the
Royal Air Force.
Meanwhile, while my friend was intent in research, I sat on a rock on
the bank of the river. As I paused to observe the clear water running down
the valley and to listen to the sound of the wind blowing through the tall
beeches, my mood changed rapidly.
My mind took a leap back in time and I thought about that dark night
when seven young boys died in this place so beautiful, yet so dismal.
For a moment I thought I could see their faces all around me -- faces
that stared at me, as if they were angels to watch over the place, angels
looking down through the years and over the modern indifference that brings
forgetfulness and dims events of the past. Not a flower, not a plaque
to remember those young lives shattered against the mountain.
We were about to return home when the last sound of the metal detector
drew our attention to an important discovery: a plaque with the inscription
"TYPE HALIFAX" and some numbers. I know planes pretty well, I know that
Halifax is the kind of four-engine used by the RAF (Royal Air Force). What
luck to find a fragment with the name of the aircraft in the middle of
16,000 kg of aluminum! Now we knew that plane was fundamental to our research!
The day had almost come to an end, the rays of sunset stretched our
shadows across the ground, and we were tired but satisfied.
During the following days I started to surf the internet in search
of names and faces of those seven poor boys just to get a little information:
* Pilot F/L Donald Ernest Hillman J/17893 RCAF died at age 26 ~
Canadian pilot navigator P/O
* Nicholas Holyk J/92012 RCAF died 35 years Canadian engineer SGT
* Arthur Pinder 1538939 RAFVR (Volunteer Reserve) died gunner SGT
* Dixon Finlayson 1824006 RAFVR 35 years died English gunner SGT
* John Michael Sumner 1801255 RAFVR died pointer SGT
* James Ross Robertson J161315 RCAF died 21 years Canadian radio operator
* Edward Geoffrey Chapman 1323119 RAFVR 21 years died English
The plane, type II Halifax, serial number JP237, was part of the "148
Squadron" of the RAF and took off from a base in Brindisi at 20:11 on a
secret mission called "SOUND 1", which should have been part of 13 aircraft,
but that, due to technical problems, were reduced to 10. All carried out
their mission successfully except precisely that of Hillman, though he
was an excellent pilot: After two there was no further radio contact and
the aircraft was reported missing to the north-east of Genoa, between Santa
Maria del Taro Borgo Val di Taro. Causes of the crash are not as yet entirely
clear, the most likely instance being brought down by the enemy air defenses
in the skies of Liguria or an error of altitude assessment altitude of
Sometime later, Alexander and I went back to the crash site, where
we made a stone altar, laying on it a few pieces of the plane and a bouquet
of flowers in memory of those young lives cut short so tragically and forgotten.
After a few minutes of silence a few drops of rain began to bathe our
faces. It was time to return home and, while we rapidly climbed down
the mountain, a dense fog began to descend. I looked back to the altar
one last time and, for a moment, I seemed to see seven angels smiling and
watching us before the thick fog engulfed them and blanketed them from
I dedicate this article to my daughter Rachel and her generation to
let them know a small part of history, because those who do not know history
are doomed to repeat it ...
Information for this article is drawn in part from the book 'On
the ground scenderem for battle' of Ferrari and Ferruccio
and Bill Hillman's websites www.airmuseum.ca/rcaf/donald.html
Read the original translation from Italian at the Sabini
The version on this page was adapted by William Hillman